Republicans reload for Simi Valley showdown
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Republican establishment candidates face a new challenge in Wednesday night’s second GOP presidential debate: how to capture the excitement of primary voters that is now squarely behind the outsiders.
Meanwhile, front-runner Donald Trump, second-place Ben Carson and rising star Carly Fiorina have to show they could lead the country.
Here’s a look at what Republicans say each candidate needs to do for a successful showing Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Republicans say the billionaire businessman will need to conjure all of his skills as a supremely confident showman and entertainer to handle the increased scrutiny and attacks likely headed his way.
However, many Republicans say he also needs to display a strong grasp of policy while laying out a vision for the country that goes beyond the insistence that he’ll “make America great again” by “winning” at everything.
Of course, the normal rules don’t seem to apply to Trump, who led the RealClearPolitics average of polls on Tuesday with 30 percent support.
“I’m not sure he needs to do anything other than continue to be the dominant alpha male,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “It’s worked for him so far.”
Carson can seek to build on the anti-establishment sentiment that has carried him into second place and has helped him gain on Trump, coming within 4 points of the front-runner in a CBS/New York Times poll released Tuesday.
Republicans say the next step for Carson, who grew out of poverty in Detroit to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon, is convincing voters that he has the policy chops of a president and the temperament of a commander in chief.
“He’s got to explain how what he’s done in the past will translate into effective political leadership,” Republican pollster David Winston said. “Everyone knows he’s a brilliant doctor, but people need to hear how that skill set transfers over to governance.”
The former Florida governor can’t appear to be bullied by Trump, but he must also maintain the steady and high-minded presence that has won him the support of many party establishment figures.
Perhaps most importantly, Bush needs to display humor and fire to reverse the “low-energy” designation Trump has branded him with.
“The only time he showed passion at the last debate was when he was defending Common Core,” said Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican operative. “He needs to show that passion for everything to dispel this notion that he’s just a wonk.”
The Texas senator is waiting for the frenzy of anti-establishment support that has so far cottoned on to Trump and Carson to turn his way. Republicans say that’s a fine strategy for the debate as well.
Unlike some of his rivals, Cruz has no beef with Trump, and he isn’t at this point desperate for a breakout moment.
“It’s going to be hard to stand out and overshadow Trump if you’re not going after him,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who also writes for The Hill’s Contributors blog. “He should just continue to make the argument that he’s the most conservative candidate on stage and be ready to win over grassroots conservatives if Trump or Carson falter.”
Rubio failed to gain traction in the polls after the last debate, when many pundits viewed him as the standout performer.
Still, Republicans say the Florida senator should stick to a message that couples his inspirational story of growing up the child of immigrants with the notion that he’s the youthful future of the party.
Rubio has sought to portray himself as the foremost foreign policy hawk in the GOP field. With national security being a pet issue for debate moderator Hugh Hewitt, Rubio needs to be ready to own the issue.
“It’s an opportunity for him to re-stake his claim there,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO’s feud with Trump has boiled over in recent weeks.
But Republicans say Fiorina, who will be debating the top-polling candidates for the first time, would do well to stay above the fray and focus on the story of how she arrived as the only woman on the prime-time stage.
“This is a very different moment for her from the last time,” Winston said. “She needs to make the case about why her background has prepared her to be president and what skills she brings that the others don’t have.”
Walker, who has fallen dramatically in the polls, may need a strong debate performance more than anyone else onstage.
The Wisconsin governor has vowed to bring more fire to the debate, something Republicans say was noticeably lacking from the last one, when he described himself as “aggressively normal.”
Walker’s proposal this week to eliminate federal employee unions could help keep him on message; Republicans say he has been blown off course chasing the news cycle.
“He went from looking like a true conservative and a fighter to just another politician,” Gross said. “Some passion out of him is essential.”
Republicans say Kasich is still in the enviable position of introducing himself to many voters for the first time, giving him the freedom to showcase his record as Ohio governor and his nearly two decades in the House.
He’ll also need to outline the differences between himself and Bush. They share the same baggage related to their support for Common Core and immigration reform.
“He did well with compassionate conservative message at the first debate and showed fire and emotion while doing it,” said Doug Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “Stick with what got you here.”
Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie and Rand Paul
Huckabee’s rush to embrace Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk arrested for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, likely makes the former Arkansas governor “the sole beneficiary of that political episode, and he needs it to remind voters of how strong he’s been on issues important to social conservatives,” Mackowiak said.
For Christie, “it’s time for him to start punching up,” Mackowiak said. A combative but controlled performance could remind conservatives of the straight-talking New Jersey governor they once swooned over.
Paul has been “completely marginalized,” O’Connell said. In a move that has doomed other desperate candidates, the Kentucky senator is committed to taking on Trump. Republicans say his bigger focus should be to re-energize a libertarian base that seems to have cooled on his candidacy.